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Nicola Cornick – House Of Shadows

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What goes around comes around.

Publisher: Mira (Harlequin)
Pages: 468
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45416-3
First Published: 5th November 2015
Date Reviewed: 5th November 2015
Rating: 5/5

Holly is woken in the early hours of the morning by her young niece. The girl can’t find her father, it seems he’s left their house and she hasn’t seen him for a couple of hours; Holly leaves her uncaring boyfriend and travels to Oxfordshire to be with her. Ben is gone and the police can’t find him but as Holly begins to search the house and move into it herself she finds items from her brother’s family research, and in time she discovers that the beautiful old house she sees through the trees has never actually been there.

It’s difficult summing up the plot without giving too much away; House Of Shadows is part contemporary, part 1600s Europe and part 1800s England – the narrative includes Elizabeth Stuart and her possible relationship with a squire as well as the tale of a Georgian courtesan.

This book is magnificent. It’s a historical fantasy mystery romance about a curse that uses tropes to good effect. It’s brilliantly written, well plotted. The mystery is drawn out by way of many factors rather than just to keep the story going – this is to say Cornick doesn’t make you wait, she’s always revealing aspects so you feel rewarded but she reveals things in drips and drabs to keep you coming back. She knows what to reveal and when.

Needless to say it’s lengthy but never boring. There’s always something going on and quite frankly you wouldn’t want it any shorter because it’s just so good. The character development is bar none. Cornick has done a wonderful job, most especially with Holly whose story us modern readers are most likely to relate to. There is romance in each of the eras, defined by a pushing back of affection. It’s sad in the case of the 1600s but understandable – a queen desperately in love with a squire, both knowing they could destroy her life if they made anything of it. It’s sad but understandable in the case of the 1800s, the poor Georgian courtesan who cannot leave her abusive patron for her poor lover. In Holly’s case it’s understandable but in an entirely different way. Holly is constantly pushing back her one night stand, a man she felt an instant connection with for reasons she can’t explain. It’s the sort of setup that annoys many readers but what Cornick does is fully develop Holly’s character and show the reader why Holly does this, really delveing into it but without any naval-gazing or other things that can bring plots down. Cornick lets you into Holly’s mind, into her psyche, she almost wills you to become the character herself (and sometimes you’ll certainly wish you were with the amazing experiences Holly has!) The author has written a fantastic character who, whilst she may be silly every now and then – who wouldn’t be in the situation? – is someone you want to keep reading about.

Holly stays realistic. She leaves her home but brings her work with her; she doesn’t neglect her business. She leaves her boring arrogant boyfriend and the few pages Cornick gives to the scene between them is more than enough to understand it. She goes to her friend’s coffee shop for lunch and to chat but doesn’t forget to walk her dog. And all these things drive the plot forward. The dog is an important character. There’s even a paragraph or two devoted to the career/children debate.

The other characters – Elizabeth Stuart and Lavinia – get their fair number of pages and are well thought-out, it’s just the limitations of their eras’ views of women that make them less memorable than Holly. This said, Lavinia is winsome and Cornick’s use of Elizabeth and William Craven, semi-fictional or not, will make you want to learn more about them. You’re going to want to help bring these Stuarts to the foreground.

The world building, then, is equally as good. You’re drawn in and you stay there. You might prefer one time period to the other but all have that same atmosphere, that pull on your mind. It’s that magical feeling you get when you’re reading an exceptionally good book. Cornick uses the basic history we have about the people and locations and then moulds them until they fit her idea, for example the Ashdown House of the book no longer stands – in reality it’s still around but access is limited. It’s all done respectfully.

The fantasy is there from the beginning and it’s the sort that straddles magical realism and full-on mystical. It’s the sort you wilfully suspend reality for whilst knowing there are patches of realism in it anyway. All genre elements in this book fit well together; they’re equally important.

It’s clear that Cornick has spent much time and effort getting it right; it comes together in one big successful stack of pages. Even the length is perfect. Informative sections have been kept to a minimum – you can almost see where a line was drawn for no more description. There are some errors – proofreading – but whilst noticeable they don’t detract from the reading experience.

House Of Shadows is epic and glorious and a history lover’s dream. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review from the publisher on behalf of the author.

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Jo Walton – Among Others

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A book about books and fairies.

Publisher: Corsair (Tor)
Pages: 398
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-10653-7
First Published: 18th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 25th August 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Mori can see and talk to fairies. With her twin gone and her mother out to get her, too, she runs away and ends up living with her absent father and his sisters. Sent off to a prestigious boarding school, she’s out of place but finds solace in the library. She’ll try to stop her mother gaining power if she can and will read the entirety of the library’s science fiction section in the interim.

Among Others falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism. A book about books, it’s mostly the thoughts of a reader with a bit of spell-casting thrown in.

Something that’s intriguing to discuss is the way Walton deals with magic in this book – it could be argued there is no magic. What exactly is magic, after all? The reader does not see much of Mori’s mother and there are no incantations or blood bindings – such things are spoken of but never really shown. This is not to say there is no magic as such, more that it could be argued the magic is the magic of nature – Mori finding comfort in nature and in her imagination. This is what makes the book fall between fantasy and magical realism. Whether it’s magic in the typical sense of the word is down to the reader’s own interpretation.

And that is a wonderful thing. That Among Others can be interpreted in various ways makes it special. When Mori speaks of adults having power over her are they really casting spells or is it her fear of the unknown, of these relatives who are strangers to her? Her mother is unsafe to be around – the authorities wouldn’t have sent her to her father if Mori were dreaming it – but is this mother actually a witch or is it more of a metaphor? Is Mori using the idea of magic to cope with abuse? In the time span of the book, a year or so (barring a glimpse of the past), Mori gains knowledge of sexual desire and has her first boyfriend. She also grows as a person, very much so, and another section that could be viewed as a metaphor concerns the last time Mori deals with her sister, and her grief.

I’d like to talk about the scene concerning Mori’s father – the person Mori has obviously taken her ‘reading genes’ from. The potential abuse is never mentioned again – Mori wipes over it but not in a way that suggests she needs to in order to cope with it, more that she does not, or did not, understand what was happening. Mori seems not to see the issue with it and never speaks of it again. As a reader you can see the issue with it, the potential for the book to take on a different tone; it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But then Walton makes you question what you’ve read, whether accidentally (and, if so, this should have been rectified) or on purpose – Mori’s not phased by it and comes to enjoy her father’s company, as a meeting of equals if not as father and daughter, and whilst you are only ever in Mori’s head, nothing further happens or is asked. I don’t think one could say that the suggestion that Daniel is interested in his daughter is wrong, but certainly you’re challenged by it.

Another thing to love is the way Walton deals with Mori’s acquired disability. It’s always there but never takes over the plot; a good depiction of disability that states the pain and then lets Mori’s personality shine through.

So this is a book about books. It’s the diary of a reader, a list of what she’s reading with commentary. Sounds blissful, doesn’t it? And in a way it is; particularly for those who read science fiction and fantasy, Among Others is like coming home. References to classic science fiction abound (the book is set between 1979-1980). (This means that those who don’t read science fiction are less likely to understand the references, however it’s the sheer passion and the intellectual literary conversation that Walton emphasises, so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t catch every nuance.) In a way, however, it’s an issue – you are essentially reading the naval-gazing diary of a teenager who thinks she knows it all. A very ‘today I did this… and this…’ diary.

Now this isn’t so bad by itself, even if it is a bit boring sometimes to read about someone reading and doing little else – the problem is the name-dropping. This book reads as an attempt to gain love, it’s the written version of Walton putting her hand up and saying ‘author I love, notice me!’ Mori, or, as could be asserted given Walton’s age and preferences, Walton herself, gushes profusely about Ursula Le Guin (who incidentally blurbed the book, making this a nice cushy circle) and various other authors, most of whom are still around today and thus liable to read Walton’s love letter. It’s very much as though Walton has written this book to get noticed so she can get in with her idols and it’s all very cliquey and doesn’t feel very welcoming – because it’s not really. This book is for authors.

This is where the magic – be it stereotypical or not – gets let down. Pages about books and then, oh yes, I forgot, this is meant to be about magic, must add it in… and now I can get back to talking about myself and my love of science fiction. The book is very low on plot, the characters are fairly well developed but evidently not important (a great pity considering some of the content), and really all there is to take away – all you are given to take away – is a long list of books you should be reading. The ending, whilst powerful in its way, showing strength, doesn’t solve the puzzles Mori unwittingly sets for the reader.

Among Others will remind you why you seek out book clubs, festivals, and literary conversation. If you know the work of those referenced well, you’ll likely get more from it but on the whole a proper memoir about someone’s reading life and a straight out fantasy book would be better choices.

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Intisar Khanani – Sunbolt

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Battling the enemy, magicking them away.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 120
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-985-66583-8
First Published: 13th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 6th May 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Hitomi is an outsider in Karolene, which hasn’t stopped her joining those looking to bring peace to the island but does make her stand out to those she least wants to see. The League need to get a council member’s family to safety and whilst Hitomi is told to stay away from danger she wants to help as much as she can, even if it means getting caught.

Sunbolt is a non-quasi-European fantasy that heralds Khanani’s new fictional venture. Short and packed with subplots, it’s a little crowded but at the same time it’s a work of art.

Khanani has a way with words. Her prose is so simple it’s effortless. And it’s absolutely stunning. The text by itself has the ability to lure you into reading the book; it’s a feast for the literary senses and goes a long way to dull the effects of the less successful elements.

The novella is extremely diverse and bucks the usual trend. The story is set in a quasi-Middle Eastern land in an undefined time; there is enough detail for you to come to a decision as to the look, period-wise, that fits what you’re reading. The characters run the gambit from East Asian to Middle Eastern to Western to African – or at least those are the terms we would use (Khanani’s characters describe themselves by physical characteristics) – and magic and the supernatural is randomised. No one type of person is good or bad; the world of Sunbolt is very ‘anything goes’. This is not to say that the world itself is peaceful.

As for the story, it straddles the line between good and not so, and this is all down to the length. Action follows action and the story moves from one subplot to the next without returning to the previous as a book generally would. Because of all the running Hitomi does it can get a little wearing, especially as the story requires failed escapes to help it get to where it wants to be. Whilst, for example, the likelihood of Khanani returning in other books to the League is very high, for this particular book to feel finished one particular plot was needed. Had Sunbolt been a novel rather than a novella there is every reason to believe the story would have been excellent.

On the whole the characters are developed enough to sustain a novella, however Hitomi is lacking. It’s a difficult one. Khanani throws you straight into the action without any info-dumping, which is very welcome. She doesn’t mull over extraneous detailing – she gives you enough to form an image and then moves on. However this does mean that Hitomi’s reasoning isn’t particularly compelling. It’s believeable and understandable on a literal level, but you don’t get to see enough to care as much as you probably should. You will care somewhat because of Khanani’s attention to what’s important – it’s just this length issue again. On the subject of Hitomi, she’s easy-going which is generally brilliant but can make the text a little hard to read on occasion. There is a scene which is particularly violent and nasty for what it does – Hitomi’s mood change back to sunny indifference and slight humour is understandable when you consider that she needs to push past what’s happened, but hard to read from the reader’s point of view.

Khanani favours showing. You get a good picture of what’s around and who people are just from the dialogues and incidental sentences. There are no long rambling paragraphs. But the world building is strictly limited to Hitomi’s immediate surroundings. There are references to the Eleven Kingdoms and a political situation you only see from the chases and imprisoning. It’s third-hand info without the experience and, again, the length of the book is the likely issue. You will care about what’s going on in the scene but not the wider world.

Sunbolt extracts various elements from different eras, places, cultures, and myths, and binds them together in a not unsuccessful way. It really should have been longer but it’s a nice escape as it is. The prose is great enough that you can acknowledge the flaws whilst enjoying the ride – it’s all too easy to get lost, enveloped, in this book. The whole is very promising – it may not be a winner but it’s good enough and Khanani is one to watch.

I received this book for review from the author (Netgalley).

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Mikhail Elizarov – The Librarian

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Taking fandom a little too far.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 408
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27027-0
First Published: 2007 in Russian; 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 7th March 2015
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Russian
Original title: Библиотекарь (Bibliotyekar) (Librarian)
Translated by: Andrew Bromfield

In the mid 1900s, a man called Gromov writes several books that don’t do particularly well and are thus forgotten. As time moves on, however, various readers start to find an inherent value in his work. They form ‘libraries’ of people and these libraries often fight to the death to obtain original copies (the only copies worth bothering about) and supremacy. Alexei finds himself in this world; due to his uncle’s death he was looking to sell an apartment and was accosted by these ‘readers’. They want him to be their leader.

The Librarian is a somewhat ambiguous book that looks at obsession, power, and the Soviet Union in a darkly humorous satirical manner. Heavy on gore and strict in its dealings, the content presents a rather unique premise to study.

Elizarov takes the basic idea of literary interest and runs with it. The ‘readers’, as they call themselves, are in essence fans who have taken their loyalty too far. Elizarov essentially looks at the way people find meaning in books and heightens the effect, giving the books power to change readers’ lives. Of course there is always the unanswered question: did Gromov know about this effect? (And did he plan the effect to happen?) This is cause for some of the humour because Elizarov provides extracts from the texts for your perusal and these extracts are undeniably dull. Whilst it is never studied, there is reason to believe that Gromov’s work is truly mundane to the extent that it means Elizarov’s characters are stereotypical fanboys and fangirls. Essentially, we’re looking at the extremely dedicated side of fandom here, the people who find meanings no one else would, and whilst Elizarov isn’t laughing at this concept itself, the way it is placed on those of older generations makes it easier to accept.

So, whether ‘true’ or not, these people are finding power in Gromov’s books. Regular people who work in factories; mothers and daughters; old ladies in nursing homes. The various books when read in one sitting with rapt attention instil inhuman strength, dominance of mind, incredible happiness, beautiful (if unreal) memories and so forth. A lot of the humour can be found in the first section of the book, which reads like a factual report and details the sudden coming to power of a group of elderly women who break through the ward doors, kill all the staff, and take over the building.

This book is very, very violent. Elizarov doesn’t shy from the details, presenting battles in all their graphic detail. And much of the book is about battles, which means it can be hard going. This said, it’s difficult to become numbed to the violence here, as it can be in other books (The Hunger Games comes to mind). You may find it repetitive after a while, but the battles are all as horrific as the first and you never get used to it.

There is a lot of commentary here about the Soviet Union. I can’t pretend to know a lot about this slice of history and it’s fair to say you may feel as though you’ve missed something if it’s not a period you’re particularly familiar with, however considering everything I’ve said above it should be noted that there is enough to ‘get’ in this book that doesn’t depend on knowledge. The basic ideas are obvious and aspects like false memories can be viewed as possible propaganda.

In view of knowledge, however, the writing must be examined. Be it due to the original prose or simply the decisions of the translator, The Librarian is rather dry. It can be difficult to read and unfortunately the eloquence and rather exceptional language doesn’t help. It’s fair to say some of the points and subtlety are lost in the words and where the plot is composed mainly of battles this is more prominent than it could have been otherwise. There is also the fact that many of the characters are referred to by both their full names (and patronymic) and a pet name, and then also a ‘comrade’ name and additional pet names; it’s more confusing than your average Russian novel may be. This, coupled with the constant usage of full names and a basic lack of characterisation (this is very much a plot/meaning-driven novel) takes the issue further. The translation comes with a great many proofreading errors, enough that it does impact the reading.

The book changes its focus towards the end, and this is where most of the ambiguity kicks in. There are a fair number of possibilities but you may still be surprised where it ends up. It could be argued that it finishes without finishing, forever loitering on the borders of an ending, however this is part of the point and something to take heed of when you come to sort through your thoughts. Much can be said: should we consider Alexei the author of the book? Have Alexei’s dreams come true, albeit in a roundabout way? What is Elizarov suggesting by the intimation that all these books can be read one after the other?

The Librarian is an exceptional example of hidden meanings and messages; making the reader work it out doesn’t get much stronger than this. It is dull, writing wise, and it is graphic, and it is absolutely, incredibly, bonkers, but it is also a very good book.

Unique and fascinating, be careful not to let yourself be too enthralled by The Librarian; you never know how much the cost of such a love may be.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen – The Rabbit Back Literature Society

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Write what you know, having made people tell you about themselves.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 335
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-227043-0
First Published: 2006
Date Reviewed: 16th October 2014
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Finnish
Original title: Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta (Lumikko and Nine Others)
Translated by: Lola Rogers

Ella Amanda Milana, owner of lovely curved lips and defective ovaries, is a substitute literature and language teacher in Rabbit Back. Whilst the town boasts many writers, only nine have ever made it to Laura White’s Literature Society – but now Ella has been invited to join as the tenth member. Little is known of White, but everyone reads her children’s books. Little is known of the society but the writers are now famous. Nothing is known about the strange goings on in the library wherein the content of books is being changed.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a novel in a similar vein, atmospherically, to The Night Circus and The Snow Child and given its complexity, bizarreness, and otherworldliness, comparisons work best when trying to describe it. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why it works, much as it’s difficult to say anything definite about Laura White, but it just does. It’s all rather brilliant. The writing isn’t so brilliant, but as it is a translation one can’t really consider the writing the way they would normally.

There are many elements in this book, many themes, and most answers you have to decide upon for yourself, making the story ripe for discussion. It’s dark, the sort of dark that deliberately tries to hide itself and is all the more dark for it.

It’s probably best to start with what is apparent from the start – this is a book about books, about writing. It is a book for readers in that specific sense, in fact it could be said that the entire book is a plan for a book, for many books. You could in theory, ironically, take ideas from this book for your own, and I would say that this is one of the points. Jääskeläinen looks at the different concepts, the writing process, with a certain honesty than is nevertheless soaked in the strange fantasy world he has constructed. It is thus somewhat satirical.

The author turns the notion of writing what you know on its head. The writers of the Society, these geniuses identified as children, get all their ideas from the other members. A crucial part of the novel is The Game, a somewhat sadistic ritual in which each member may ‘challenge’ another, instructing them to answer a question about themselves or something they likely know about with complete honesty. To spill, as they put it, for fodder for the other’s next book.

So here we are with these ‘geniuses’ who seem to lack inspiration, ideas, and possibly the talent to even form the words. The questions ‘what is talent? What is special?’ are asked on a constant basis. Similar are questions of plagiarism and the extent to which a person should be allowed to write about what they hear. Jääskeläinen cleverly looks at his discussions from various angles, rather as his characters literally look at angles, pulling you along and back and then leaving you to laugh, or to be shocked at where he ends up. What does all of it mean? Are the authors really lacking in their own ideas? Where do ideas come from? And is there a point at which placing people on pedestals, seeing them as untouchable by our inferior selves becomes ridiculous?

And what of children, these young people who White writes for, whom the characters in turn give birth to for the sake of their partners, have but do not love, are incapable of having? Children in general form a large part of the book as Jääskeläinen studies the idea of children from an adult’s viewpoint, a particular viewpoint that conflicts with the wholesome way we are supposed to look at it. It makes you feel sympathetic, it makes you cringe and feel bad for the fictional children, and it makes you think. Detached from the usual emotions that surround the idea of having children, this book really makes you think and it’s really quite uncomfortable.

The theme of the infested, plague-ridden books continues throughout. You are completely on your own for this one, for it is never formally answered. It just continues, words keep being jumbled, stories are changed, and therefore books are burned. A version of a book should never buck the trend of the previous, it should always be the same.

Can you like anyone in Rabbit Back? Similarly to the characters themselves you may find someone you like for a short while before you inevitably end up sitting at a different table. But this book is not about liking people or getting on, and it’s safe to say that Jääskeläinen is using them as much as anyone else. In the hierarchy the author is surely top dog and that is a big part of what makes the book a crack in the fourth wall.

Is it all a metaphor for ideas and writing, a metaphor for story creation and difference? What’s real? See for yourself.

You won’t get any answers, perhaps there aren’t any. But you will have a fantastic few hours studying this book.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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